Ziporyn argues that chang and its cognate heng, used in the first line of the Laozi, mean something more like “ordinary” or “everyday”, rather than “constant” in the sense of unchanging, hence “eternal”. (p 213)

They also suggest a normative value: “authentic”—consistent with our experience. Bringing these two together he suggests that a more accurate translation would be “sustainable”.

“A dao that is spoken is not a sustainable dao.” A spoken dao is a fixed dao, but all things are in flux, including our opinions on what is Dao. Every “Dao” is only just a dao. There’s no need to imply “the Dao” is even mentioned here.

“Zhuangzi said to Huizi, ‘Confucius went along for sixty years and transformed sixty times. What he first considered right, he later considered wrong. . . .’ Huizi said, ‘Confucius certainly devoted himself to the service of knowledge.’ Zhuangzi said, ‘No, Confucius had let go of such things. . . . Let’s just say I am no match for him!’” (27; p 115)

This curious apocryphal exchange gives us a sense of how our spoken daos can be informed of their unsustainability and be thereby returned to their validity. Their validity rests in their self-understanding that they are but temporary and tentative understandings. Daos are unavoidably spoken; the point is to not cling to them as fixed, sure and true.

Ziporyn offers: “Guiding courses [daos] taken as explicit guides cease to provide sustainable guidance.”

This was at the heart of the Daoist revolution. With the political world in chaos everyone was looking for the True Dao—absolutely reliable Guidance. Daoism realized there is none.  It does not just say that there is none, however, but also that the lack of such Guidance can itself guide us. (Following some personal dao—guidance—is unavoidable.) Stepping through this gate can be a mind-expanding experience, an adventure in “our homeland of not even anything”. We are released into “far and unfettered wandering”.

Returning to the Tianxia’s representation of Laozi as having founded his dao on “the constancy of Nonbeing”, we see that the author did not understand how this renders this dao unsustainable. But then he was at heart a sympathizer with the more historical Confucius who was indeed “devoted to knowledge” fixed and sure.


How we translate the opening line of the Laozi (Daodejing) determines which of two radically opposing trajectories we take it to follow.

Ziporyn discusses this in his treatment of chang in his “Glossary of Essential Terms”. (p 213) Its cognate heng appears in the aforementioned line, and has sometimes been translated “Eternal”: “A dao that can be spoken is not the Eternal Dao.” [This and other quotes from the Laozi will be my own synthesis from several translations, and thus will appear without attribution.]

This implies that there is an Eternal Dao. An alternative translation has “Constant Dao”, but this amounts to the same thing. Whether this is the same word used by the Tianxia when it says of Laozi that he founded his way on “the constancy of Nonbeing”, I cannot say. [A clear example of my lack of scholarly tools.] Nevertheless, its implication is the same: Dao is a metaphysical Something. We cannot identify it, but it is there nonetheless; as such we can experience “it” in some mystical way.

This is pretty much the standard understanding. And this, in my parlance, amounts to a religious understanding. There is something to believe in. But what we believe in is simply something we have thought up. This is “taking one’s mind as one’s teacher”—being behoven to the “understanding consciousness”. Ironically, this apparent irrationalism (belief in what cannot be rationally demonstrated—spoken) is itself a kind of rationalism. The object of belief is a creation of the mind.

Why do we seemingly most always default to such beliefs? Because when “the understanding consciousness” truly admits that it cannot know, the bottom falls out of our existence. We are left adrift in an empty void. Yet, it is in this experience that the gate into Zhuangzi’s vision opens. And yes, it can be an experience, and not just an idea.

The great thing about emptiness as an experience is that it is ever near at hand—it is, after all, our most authentic and core experience. That’s the sum of it—just being what we are—empty.

In the next post we will consider the alternative translation of this first line in the Laozi.


The Tianxia’s interpretation of Laozi is metaphysical. It tells us about extra-mundane realities; and understanding these can show us how best to live. “They founded their way on the constancy of Nonbeing and centered it on the supreme Oneness.” (p 122)

The previous post spoke to the very un-Zhuangzian belief that we can take Nonbeing (“non-existence” in Zhuangzi’s parlance) as “a constant Dao”—one that can definitively guide us. It will be necessary, I think, to take a close look at the first chapter of the Laozi in order to get a fuller sense of how this differs radically from Zhuangzi’s philosophy and vision, and quite possibly that of Laozi himself.

Before we do, however, we can consider the second part of this statement as a means to further demonstrating our thesis that this does not agree with Zhuangzian Daoism. They centered their dao on the “supreme Oneness”. I have often spoken to the fact that Zhuangzi never actually commits to the existence of such a Oneness. Indeed, he makes a point of dismissing any possibility of doing so. One can enjoy a psychological experience of oneness, but this does not imply a belief that there actually is such a thing. That would be to depend on something known, when no such knowledge is possible.

Ziporyn (p 16; note 18) quotes A. C. Graham in this regard: “It may be noticed that [Zhuangzi] never does say that everything is one (except as one side of a paradox), [but rather] always speaks subjectively of the sage treating [all things] as one.” (Graham; Chuang Tzu, p 56)

This discussion, like most, leads me to ask what difference any of this makes. My interest is not academic; if that is all that is at stake here, then these inquiries have gone completely off the track. But this implies that these nuances actually do make a difference. Is that belief justified?

The real question is whether Zhuangzi’s vision of utter non-dependence as a means to a happier life works—and secondarily, whether it works better than the alternative. The answer to these questions can only be subjectively determined.

My fallback position is that, for me, whatever its efficacy, there really is no alternative if I wish to pursue a conscious strategy for coping with the life experience. I cannot believe. I cannot follow what amounts to religious belief.

In the end, it is this “pursuit” in its dialectic between being and not-yet-being, which is to say in its becoming, that is the sum of its “working”. And this, I suspect, differs little from the experience of those who pursue the alternative.

Ideally no “pursuit” is necessary at all, of course. My actuality, however, is other than ideal.


The Tianxia attempts to completely affirm and absorb the teachings of the Laozi and can easily do so—provided it follows a certain reading of it. This reading, for the most part, is what others have understood and that which likely agrees with the interpretation followed in the popular imagination.

The Laozi is sufficiently ambiguous to allow at least two radically different takes. Whichever one we follow must therefore be largely subjectively determined. For my part, I interpret it in the light of Zhuangzi’s “Daoism”, while allowing that there still remain significant differences between them.

These differences are as important in the fact of their existence as in their content. There is no singular, cohesive “Daoism”. So many scholarly presentations of the philosophy of Zhuangzi in particular make him conform to such a presupposed over-arching philosophy and thus effectively mute his more radical vision. One needn’t agree with that vision, but at least one should allow him to share it.

Passing over for the moment those attributes of the Dao that Laozi and Guan Yin are said to have realized, let’s consider what they purportedly taught: “They founded their way on the constancy of Nonbeing and centered it on the supreme Oneness.” (p 122) However profound this statement might seem, it is the polar opposite of the position of Zhuangzi.

The Neo-Daoist philosopher Wang Bi (226–249), whose commentary on the Laozi became the standard interpretation is in essential agreement with the assessment of the Tianxia. Laozi is understood to have shifted our focus away from Being to Nonbeing. This embodies the Daoist revolution—the realization that the incoherent and empty forms the context for every presumed coherence and completeness. In the context of our addiction to yang (knowing, Being), it introduced the importance of yin (our not-knowing, Nonbeing).

Where this view goes astray from the Zhuangzian perspective is in that it now takes Nonbeing as itself a known something. “The constancy of Nonbeing” now simply replaces the constancy of Being. It fails to self-efface.

Furthermore, Dao is now equated with Nonbeing and (as we will see) thus fails to include Being which is subsequently subordinated to Non-Being.

Through infinite regress, Zhuangzi makes a point of demonstrating that we can never arrive at any such constancy. (2:31) And another renowned Neo-Daoist, Guo Xiang (252-312), in agreement with Zhuangzi, in my estimation, completely dismisses any equation of Dao with Nonbeing, and the instead returns them both to utter emptiness


The Tianxia next turns to Laozi and Guan Yin, for whom it has nothing but praise. If it were not for its conspicuous decision to exclude Confucius and his disciples from critique altogether, one might conclude that the author was a syncretist of primarily Daoist sympathies. Many have come to this conclusion because of this exclusion; I, as previously stated, take the opposite view, namely that the exclusion of Confucius is because he did in fact embody “the ancient Art of the Dao”, now mostly lost, and was thus above criticism. His introductory statements and carefully crafted positive allusions to Confucians and their teachings support this conclusion.

Nevertheless, this synthesis still attempts to fully absorb Daoist thought. Is this possible? My sense is that it proved impossible, at least as regards Zhuangzian “Daoism”. The Confucian Dao is fixed and sure; the Zhuangzian Dao is fluid and perpetually self-effacing.

Guan Yin is the legendary Keeper of the Gate who insisted that Laozi write down his teachings, before he could pass into India. For some this serves to excuse Laozi for writing the Daodejing (Laozi) despite its teaching that “those who speak do not know”. To my thinking, however, there is no reason to think that he believed he knew; indeed, that’s the whole point.

There is a book that bears his name, the Guanyinzi (not to be confused with the Guanzi) but it is universally considered a spurious work of as late as the 7th Century. That the Tianxia is able to quote him must therefore remain something of a mystery, there now being no known work by him, even if he did exist.

I also take Laozi to be an entirely legendary figure, at least as represented, while the book that bears his name is a compilation of the evolved thought of a growing “Daoist” philosophy, probably contemporaneous with the work of Zhuangzi.

None of this really matters all that much to our purposes here, of course. We are only considering ideas, and have no need for authoritative historical pedigrees. No one needs to have existed. Nothing has to be true.


In the end, the Tianxia completely dismisses these three worthies: “What they called the Dao was not really the Dao, so even what was right in their words could not but turn out wrong. Peng Meng, Tian Pian, and Shen Dao did not really know the Dao.” (p 122)

We must assume, therefore, that the Dao is not as “all-embracing and non-partisan” as we were led to believe.

The author of the Tianxia apparently failed to fully appreciate the implications of his own professed understanding of Dao. But there are, of course, two levels at which to view this. There is Dao as all-embracing, and there is Dao as practically expressed. On one level we cannot stray from Dao, since it is all-embracing—whatever we do or believe is Dao—the Happening; but on the practical level we can, and most likely do stray.

Zhuangzi’s Dao is the confluence of all daos. Every human expression is Dao. From this perspective, everyone represented in the Tianxia is equally “in the Dao”. If, however, we fail to appreciate and actualize this, then we would be straying from the Dao.

Though it is likely that we do just that, it needn’t worry us overmuch in as much as Zhuangzi’s Dao is just another dao. For Dao to be Dao it must also perpetually not-be “the” Dao.

The author of the Tianxia has every right to judge between these daos, but one gets the sense that his judgements are not also informed of their sameness. The reason for this is clear from his introduction where he declares there is a True Dao that can at least be partially articulated and thus can serve as an absolute standard by which to critique all daos. His Dao fails to self-subsume. It is, in the end, precisely the kind of Dao that Zhuangzi suggested needs to see itself as just another dao.

Informed of this, it can critique other daos to its heart’s content and still remain “all-embracing and non-partisan”.


The “eschewal of all positive teachings”, the attempt to be free of any supposedly definitive knowledge about Reality, also pulls the rug out from under moral absolutism. Peng Meng’s unidentified teacher declared, “The ancient men of the Dao simply reached the point of considering nothing right or wrong.” (p 122)

Zhuangzian Daoism shares a similar point of view, though this statement as it stands could easily be misunderstood. Let’s turn it around and say, everything is right and wrong. That’s a lot of right and wrong. This is just as much Zhuangzi’s position as the other. Right and wrong are a function of perspective, not reflections of an absolute moral Heaven, but they are, nonetheless, valid human expressions.

I am presently in the US and in a state where all “veterans” are considered “heroes”, the best of us. They have done the “right” thing. It’s easy enough to imagine those whose countries have been invaded and whose family members have been blown to bits thinking quite the opposite. [As a “combat veteran” of the abominable Vietnam War, I think I’ve earned the right to declare myself no hero.]

Zhuangzi looks at both points of view and asks whether there is therefore any absolute right and wrong. There is not. But there is right and wrong. Right and wrong belong to the human, and as such are entirely affirmable. Only now we understand how they are “hopelessly tangled up” and this frees us from becoming emotionally attached to any of them as to “sworn oaths”.

As a consequence of their eschewal of all positive teachings and their subsequent rejection of right and wrong, the Tianxia tells us, “These men insisted on doing the opposite of what others do.” Yet this is precisely the opposite of what Zhuangzi’s moral relativism recommends. On the contrary, his conclusion is that, as much as possible, we “follow along with” what others do. “When in Rome . . .”

Hopefully the reader has lots of questions about all this—I do. It remains “hopelessly tangled up.”


Tian Pian, following his teacher Peng Meng, taught “the eschewal of all positive teachings”. (p 122) I often quote this as a wonderfully positive expression of the Zhuangzian position regarding all knowing. A “positive teaching” is something known and articulated—something to act upon because it’s true.

Though there is danger in saying so, we can say that Zhuangzi basically taught emptiness. “It’s just being empty—nothing more.” (7:13) There’s nothing to believe; no truth to depend on. The danger lies in taking this emptiness as itself a something or a somewhere—or as the truth about Reality. “All things are Empty; be thou therefore empty”—this is a positive teaching.

Emptiness cannot be articulated because the saying cannot be empty. It can only be an experience that we talk about even as we negate it. Emptiness must be empty of itself.

Very much like Zhuangzi, these two analyzed the nature of words to demonstrate their unavoidable twoness and exclusionary character. “When any one thing is taught, something else is blocked out. But the Dao excludes nothing.”

This can be seen as the point of departure for philosophical Daoism generally. Dao is the inclusion of what is always unavoidably excluded when we say anything. It is the inclusion of the incoherence that every coherence creates. It is the inclusion of the yin of every yang. It is the appreciation of the usefulness of what was thought to be useless.

If we attempt to include what our words have left out we will necessarily be caught up in an infinite regress. It cannot be done. Emptiness is the can’t-be-doneness of this experience.

Teaching the eschewal of all positive teachings is, of course, a positive teaching. This contradiction is unavoidable. Should it therefore not be taught? Of course it “should” (can be). The realization of the inherent contradictions of the human experience does not require the abandonment of our humanity, but rather invites us to dive right in.

Living in “drift and doubt” is being authentically human.


“Indeed, a clump of earth never strays from the Dao.” I find what Shen Dao is on to here to be profoundly inspiring, despite his apparent failure to realize its full implications.

Shen Dao would have us become like this clump of earth so as to not stray from the Dao. What he seems to have missed is that, even in our straying, we cannot stray from the Dao. Where there is straying, this too is Dao. Human straying is Dao.

This, of course, is metaphysical Dao, the Dao that is everything, even “piss and shit”. (22; p 89) This Dao represents the Totality in which we “hide” ourselves so as never to be lost. This incredibly self-abusing mess called humanity is Dao, for Dao is all-embracing, all-inclusive. Your mess is Dao. My mess is Dao. Our collective mess is Dao. All is well in the Great Mess.

The alternative requires Two. If all is not well in The Great Mess, then the world is irredeemably sundered; there are forever Two. If, on the other hand, Dao is the Great Happening, then whatever happens is Dao. There is One.

Is there One or are there Two? Saying is already two, and saying can only walk that one road. It is not whether there is One or Two that matters, however, but what the psychological transcendence of Twoness can mean for our enjoyment of life. It unifies and harmonizes; and that makes for a more pleasurable existence, whatever that existence is “really” all about.

We can and ceaselessly do stray from this psychological Dao, needless to say. But this straying is also Dao. Straying and not-straying are thus “unified to create a oneness”, a third term—Not-Straying. (Just as ‘this’ and ‘that’ are unified in an all-embracing affirmation of This.)


It was Shen Dao who declared, “Just become like an inanimate object. There is no need for worthies and sages. Indeed, a clump of earth never strays from the Dao.” (p 122)

There is much to inspire us in this sentiment, even while we sense it is somehow too one-sided and extreme. It represents but one road, while our actual life experience cannot escape the paradox of having to always walk two.

The first sentence makes this clear enough. “Just become . . .” Become what makes no effort to become—even though in reality we are a ceaseless, volitional becoming. Shen Dao’s “spinning feather”, aloft upon the vagaries of the wind, is a wonderful metaphor for the freedom of following along with the unavoidable; but we go astray when we take it too literally.

And this is what gives credence to the criticisms of his peers: “Shen Dao’s dao is no practice for the living, but it is a perfect guideline for the dead!”

The Tianxia therefore concludes, “In the end he was regarded as merely an eccentric.” But of course he was. Why would we expect otherwise? Nevertheless, eccentricity in a mess of such vast proportions is not necessarily a vice.